How our smartphone can wreck our life.

In these days of Amazon and declining town centres, I try to support our local bookshop.  So when the man from Waterstone’s said “It’s a great book; read it,”  I bought it and read it.  And it has changed my life, a bit.

To be fair I had already read some reviews of this international best-seller along with one extended extract on a subject I had always found intriguing.

And the bonus, as I was later to discover, is that the author who is Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California (and therefore an eminent academic on top of his subject) was born and raised in Liverpool.  I assume he supports EFC.

Here it is on my desk:  Matthew Walker – Why we sleep.

To summarise the book in three words:  we need sleep.  Two more words:  a lot. 

Walker handles his material well and with purpose:  he writes well.  Essentially, he sets out a convincing case that that sleep is vitally important — even more important than diet and exercise.

And don’t kid yourself – we all need sleep, at least seven hours a night.  Especially the last two hours, which can so easily be snatched away by the alarm clock.

Walker writes with a passion.  He argues that the invention of the electric light (which allows us to ignore the daily rhythm of sunrise and sunset) along with the pervasiveness of caffeine has wrecked our sleep pattern.

I skimmed the chapters where he demonstrates how sleep deprivation contributes to chronic illnesses such as dementia, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.  Not to mention road traffic accidents.  Walker had already convinced me that a lack of sleep is now one of our greatest public health challenges.

One fact I found stunning.

“There is a ‘global experiment’ that is performed on 1.6 billion people across 70 countries twice a year, and it’s called daylight saving time. In the spring when we lose one hour of sleep, we see a subsequent 24 percent increase in heart attacks. In the fall, when we gain one hour of sleep, we see a 21 percent decrease in heart attacks. That is how fragile your body is with even the smallest perturbations of sleep, but most of us don’t think anything about losing an hour of sleep.”

So how has it changed my life?  Well, I no longer take my smartphone to bed.  It stays downstairs on my desk.

And more, I am aiming to implement the most important lesson of the book – to go to bed at the same time every night so as to wake up at the same time every day.

Looking back on my ministry I now value even more my News at Ten rule.  That is, I always aim to be home for 10.00 pm, which gives me 30 minutes to relax before going to bed at 10.45.

As a church leader I owe it to church members that they too can be home by 10.00 pm especially if they have a proper job.  (Actually I failed the PCC this last Tuesday – mea culpa).

Here I quote a poem which I am sure could be endorsed by Professor Walker:
Mary had a little lamb
It was for her to keep
It then became a Baptist
And died for lack of sleep. 

But this is how God has made us, in fact every single living organism on this planet. We are, to quote Psalm 130, “fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”

Sleep is an integral part of how we are made.  Forget the Thatcher years when sleep was considered a waste of time.  It’s an invaluable gift of God.

And more:  while Walker totally debunks Freud’s theory on dreams (that’s a relief) he demonstrates, again very convincingly, that sleeping enhances creativity.  Here our brain sorts itself out overnight.   So Paul McCartney awakes with the melody which was to become the most-covered song ever.

For sleep allows us to see things in a new light.  Hence the phrase: “I’ll sleep on it.”  So in the New Testament, Joseph and then the apostle Paul for example, change direction, in Paul’s case literally, following a night’s sleep.

So if at all possible we aim to make decisions, especially important ones, in the cold light of morning, when our minds following sleep are more lucid and less prone to our immediate emotions.

So the King David rejoices:
“I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.
I am not afraid of tens of thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.”  (Psalm 3:5f)

He went to sleep troubled, fearful of all those set against him.  And he awakes refreshed, now confident of God’s sustenance.  It’s a new day dawning.

It takes just one person for history to change course.

It’s 7:50 am.  Which means I have a whole hour.  So here we go:

“We shall fight on the beaches . . We shall never surrender!”

So ends Joe Wright’s epic film Darkest Hour as Gary Oldman’s truly impressive Churchill strides out of the House of Commons followed by thunderous acclamation.

But not quite, for there is one very important end credit.   We are informed that Britain received Germany’s surrender in May, 1945.

At this time I thought this somewhat superfluous:  it’s stating the obvious.  Everyone knows we won.  Or to make it more personal, Churchill beat Hitler.

But on reflection it has to be said.  For the simple reason that the whole film only makes sense if Churchill is finally vindicated.

There’s no need for a spoiler alert here.  You know the story.  However, you may not know the details of the first few days of Churchill’s premiership in his resolute stand against any negotiated ‘peace’ settlement (i.e. surrender).

If I have any criticism of the film it is that it is prepared to bend some facts (and make one whole scene up) to make a better story.  In reality, Churchill was utterly determined to stand up to the might of Hitler even against impossible odds.  I’m sure he never wavered, except possibly within his own mind.

Which begs one huge question.  If Churchill had not been prime minister in May, 1940, would I now be writing this blog in German?   Or alternatively, würde ich jetzt diesen Blog auf Deutsch schreiben?  (Don’t be impressed:  Google translation).

Did one single individual make all the difference?

Here we are talking about the Great Man theory of history.  To quote the eminent Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, ” No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”  It just takes the right person in the right place at the right time for the flow of history to change.  And it makes history more interesting.

As it happens one of my favourite novels aims to contest this view of life:  Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  For Leo, the significance of great individuals is illusory; we are only “history’s slaves realizing the decree of Providence.”

In other words it’s all down to long-term trends and shifts – making history less interesting.

As Christians we take a clear view for the simple reason that we are anointed with the name of Jesus, the one man changed everything.

As I read in my BRF Bible reading this morning:  “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”  (Hebrews 2:14).

Jesus destroyed the power of death.  There can be no higher achievement, no more fundamental change.  And just one single life with a cosmic outcome.

Of course, the ministry of Jesus realised God’s preparation over the centuries but even so, his act of obedience was the single event which changed the millennia.

And now that I think about it the Gospels only make sense if – like “Darkest Hour” – we know the ending at the beginning.  Otherwise had Jesus’ body rotted in Joseph’s tomb his whole life would have been pointless.  And ours too.

Which means we stand in this tradition.  One person commissioned by God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, can make significant change which otherwise would not have taken place.

Take John Wesley, who challenged the easy-going theism of the 18th century by his sheer commitment to proclaiming the Gospel.  “Catch on fire,” he declared, “and people will come for miles to see you burn.”

In 1928 Archbishop Davidson considered that “Wesley practically changed the outlook and even the character of the English nation.”  Certainly some historians maintain that the Wesleyan revival so altered the course of English history that he probably saved England from the kind of revolution that took place in France.

We not just talking here about someone articulating a movement – although that in itself is a transformational role.  We are talking about someone who had they stayed at home our world would be very different today.

Which gives us all of us who belong to Christ a high calling, a defining destiny. Maybe not on the world stage but certainly within our immediate environment.  For God chooses to work through individuals, through each of us to make a difference.

So Jesus calls us;  “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” (John 15:16)

The one event which the Darkest Hour failed to highlight was the day when Churchill became Prime Minister.

I haven’t got time to find the quote (it’s now 8:41) but he had a deep sense of vocation, an understanding that all that he had experienced prior to 10 May 1940 had been preparation for this single responsibility.   However he understood it at the time, a sense of God’s call.

 

 

 

 

We DO because we ARE loved by God

Tomorrow could see a defining event in my life.  Should I finish the Ormskirk ParkRun I will enter the elite group of those who have completed 100 runs.

As a result I will wear my elite black 100 t-shirt with pride. It will go not just over my head –  but more to the point, to my head.

But it hasn’t been easy since a freak wave at La-Tranche-sur-Mer last August knocked me sideways, twisting my knee. And I was already receiving treatment to my left foot.  But now I’m back.

It will take a while to recover my fitness but at my advanced age I need to be patient and not push myself too hard.  There’s a fine balance here between effort and caution – when to push yourself and when to ease off.

I guess that’s the dilemma we all face one way or another, not least in our work-life balance.

Interestingly the phrase work–life balance only appeared in the late 1970’s as a result of greater expectations in the work place along with radical shifts in technology.

But as businessman Jack Welch reminds us: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”

This spring I retire as vicar of Christ Church – my last Sunday is 8 April while following diocesan policy I formally retire one month later, on 8 May.

It was while I was curate at Heswall in 1979 that our long-serving rector Kenneth retired – a big event which had an effect on me.  And since then in conversation with clergy about to retire, I always ask the same question: “Looking back over your ministry, what would you do differently?”

Nearly every time, the answer is the same: “I wish I had spent more time with my family.”

And I guess, not just clergy.  We are so easily driven to make wrong choices leading to an imbalance, a disparity which can damage not just our health but our relationships.

Of course, there are times when we do have to push ourselves, when our family and close friendships have to take second place.  But we can only maintain this pace for so long; otherwise we pull a muscle or damage our backs.

I’m not sure whether I have blogged about this before, but I was very much influenced by the late Frank Lake, missionary doctor and then psychiatrist who founded the Clinical Theology Association in the 1960’s.

As it happens I now discover through Wikipedia that he was born in Aughton in 1914 and that his father served as the organist and choirmaster in the parish church, which in those days would have been St Michael’s.  Anyone remember him or know about his family?

But that’s a digression.  Anyway, Frank teamed up with the eminent Swiss theologian Emil Brunner to reflect on how Jesus managed the enormous stresses and demands placed on him without losing his poise, his sense of joy and purpose.

In other words, he got the balance right.  What was the secret?

Simple – Jesus lived the cycle of grace.  For Jesus’ identity and acceptance came before achievement and ministry – rather than the other way around.  Right at the very outset of his ministry he was assured of his Father’s pleasure.

“The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: ‘This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.’” (Matthew 3:16)

The danger, the temptation, is that we start at the wrong end.  We work hard to achieve, and it is on the basis of this achievement we derive our significance.  And it is this hard-won significance which allows the acceptance we long for.

And not only do we burn out but those around us pay a price.

The good news, however, is that God wants to break into our cycle of seeking achievement by calling on us to abide in Christ.  Above all to know that we are beloved of God.

It is John who in his first letter uses the word Beloved no less than six times.

For example, “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God” (1 John 3:21).

It is as if God is saying direct to our hearts: “BE LOVED.”  And once by God’s grace we know this in our bones – albeit ones which can fracture so easily – we can begin to DO things for God.

It is Henri Nouwen who assures us: “Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert.”

So whether I finish tomorrow or not Jacqui and my family will still love me.  Even so I will be wearing my black 100 t-shirt all of the time.

When someone grabs the last Nutella.

“They are like animals. A woman had her hair pulled, an elderly lady took a box on her head, another had a bloody hand.”

For the next few days I would keep clear of Rive-de-Gier, in fact the whole of France, until the Nutella riots die down.

You may have read in this morning’s media that Intermarché has slashed (should I say gashed?) the price of this chocolate hazelnut spread from €4.50 to €1.40.

The result?  Carnage, as crowds descend on their local store.  Police were called in Ostricourt in northern France, where a fight had broken out.  Some stores risked the wrath of their customers by limiting their purchase to just three pots.

One stunned Intermarché did his best. «On essayait de se mettre entre les clients, mais ils nous poussaient.»

We used to have regular Nutella riots in our family, entre nos filles in the days when they were fillettes for in the early 1980’s we could only buy Nutella on holiday in France.  Not one shop in Heswall and then in Rochdale stocked the product.

So as we handed out the baguettes at breakfast there was an immediate lunge for the Nutella.  I must say that this did not include me – as long as no-one comes between me and my apricot jam, you’re quite safe.

But the Nutella riots give us a cautionary insight into our human nature, in the immortal words of Freddie Mercury.

“I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now,
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.”

Of course, for much of the time we appear reasonable, even selfless.  But when you see the last Nutella jar being taken, the real you takes over.   And it’s not an attractive portrait.

“The world is so competitive, aggressive, consumive, selfish and during the time we spend here we must be all but that, concludes Jose Mourinho.  I’m not sure what consumive means, neither does my spell checker – but I know what the Manchester United manager means.  And it’s not nice.

I’ve just been reading in my morning Bible reading how Jesus welcomed the tax collectors and sinners, even to eat with them and to enjoy their company.

This confused, puzzled the watching Pharisees.  From their perspective he was in danger, in danger of being contaminated by their impurity.

My BRF commentator writes:  “It is amazing – and wonderful – to see in the Gospels how sinners felt attracted to Jesus.”

“Normally shame shuts us away from human contact, especially from any who might see us as we really are, and expose our shamefulness.  But in Jesus’ case, sinners knew that he knew them, and that he wanted to be with them nevertheless – indeed that he celebrate his contact with them.  So they were drawn to him.”

It can take a Nutella riot for us to see the truth about ourselves.  For most of the time our selfish nature is contained by social mores and polite behaviour.  But it doesn’t take much for this veneer to be stripped away, especially when you can save €3.10 for each pot.

And Jesus knows this – he sees right into the darkness of our hearts, he knows our deepest motivation, he is not fooled by our pretence.   Even so he extends the love of God towards us with a passion which is awesome.

But it’s one thing to be drawn to Jesus, it’s something else to be transformed by him so that we come a Zacchaeus willing to share, not because we have to but because we want to.

We are talking now about the ministry of the Holy Spirit who begins a lifetime work of transforming us inside-out so that we willingly step aside and let someone else, even someone unsavoury, grab the last Nutella.

It’s his work, not ours:  his fruit appearing in our lives as we abide in Christ. Christians are not Pharisees trying their hardest but disciples of Jesus learning to let go and let God.

And it’s a whole lifestyle as the apostle Paul writes “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4).  Such a life style is in stark contrast to what we see around us and certainly in every Intermarché store.

So for this day may my resolve be to look out for the interests of others.  No doubt God will put me in testing situations and it will be for me to learn to respond as Jesus would.  And no doubt it will be a challenge as it was for the Good Samaritan.

The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” (Martin Luther King.)

 

When we need a second chance.

Hola a todos!

 

To be fair, we were warned: “There are strong side winds at Tenerife-South airport.” But we may not all have been emotionally prepared!

 

So we made our approach and as the landing gear lowered, you could feel our plane being tossed about, up and down, side to side.  At that point I immediately felt guilty about enjoying all those YouTube clips of planes having difficulty landing in strong crosswinds. 

 

Two women behind me were laughing very loudly. It’s wonderful to have a sense of humour, I thought. 

 

Looking out of the window I could see that we were almost there – until suddenly at just under 1000 feet the engine noise changed.  Our pilot had decided to abort the landing.

 

“I wonder what happens next” I thought as we were treated to a low-altitude survey of the east coast of Tenerife.  I knew there was another airport to the north of the island and I wondered if our car hire firm would allow me to change my booking. 

 

But no.  The first officer informed us that we were going to have another go at landing at Tenerife-South.

 

I was intrigued. Either the pilot had decided that this time he would concentrate and try harder OR he was hoping that the wind gusts would be different OR this time he would follow a particular procedure for landing in high winds.  I resolved to ask Steve Hilton when we get home. 

 

As we banked hard to the right, I must say I was impressed by the demeanour of my fellow passengers.  I could hear no quiet sobbing or rendering of “Abide with me.”  However, I decided not to remind Jacqui that the emergency exit was seven rows behind us, something I always do at takeoff.

 

So we made our second attempt – and it seemed much easier this second time around. As the tyres hit the runway, not even a bounce. Everyone applauded the skill of our pilots. 

 

If only life were this simple. 

 

We all carry our collection of regrets, often more than just a few, too few to mention.  Only this week someone opened their heart to me about how they now realise they caused the breakdown of their marriage.  “The damage’s done now, no turning back the clock.”

 

There is a delightful confession on my daughter’s website.  I’m writing this offline and so I can’t insert a hyperlink. 

 

Go to https://www.diddydisciples.org/samples.  Click the clip of the little girl in the red dress, second from the right or if you are using your phone fourth clip down.

 

I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

I wish I could start again.

 

The one person in the Gospels who wished he could start again has to be Simon the Rock.  He enthusiastically promised Jesus his total support.  “Even though all become deserters, I will not!” (Mark 14:29)  And then should anyone be in any doubt of his commitment: “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” (Mark 14:31)

 

Except that he did.

 

And as the cock crowed a second time, “Peter broke down and wept bitterly.” 

 

In “Jesus Christ Superstar” the disciples along with Mary Magdalene sing:

Hurry up and tell me,

This is just a dream,

Oh, could we start again please?

 

Very much the refrain of the human heart, the longing for a fresh start.  “Could I start again please?” That’s why the Gospel is such good news – it’s a new beginning.

 

“Easter is very important to me; it’s a second chance.” C&W singer Reba McEntire.

 

For this is the message of the resurrection, beginning with Peter.  Remarkably and against every expectation, this broken disciple is given a second chance as he walks alongside the Sea of Galilee with the risen Jesus.  “Peter, feed my sheep.”

 

And this is the prospect for every returning prodigal.  Whatever, wherever, however we are welcomed back into the Father’s arms. 

 

I recall years ago someone I knew well receiving God’s free forgiveness following their adultery and self-centred lifestyle. They were given a remarkable promise from the Old Testament which over the subsequent years proved true. 

 

The prophet Joel calls his people to repentance for their disobedience (yet again) and should they respond, God offers them a fresh start, a new beginning.  And more, he will make up for their loss.

 

“O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God. . . .

I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten.” (Joel 2:25)

Which he did. 

 

Welcome to the Second Chance Saloon!

When words shock.

This is a family blog and so you will be relieved I will not be quoting President Trump verbatim in reference to his opinion of the good people of Haiti, El Salvador and various African countries.

It was the lead story on the BBC Website earlier this morning:  Trump ‘in crude Oval Office outburst about migrants’

Here I quote (almost) “Why are we having all these people from s* countries come here?”  The BBC gives the full quote whereas most American news outlets  used the word “blank” instead.

It reminds me when the Nixon tapes were published in that age of innocence in 1971/72 we were shocked to see how often those in the White House used the phrase “expletive deleted”.   Maybe it was the pressure of running the country or just bad behaviour.

However, Trump is different.  Regardless of any diplomatic furore he articulates a worldview which is profoundly unattractive.

“Times and levels of White House discourse, and what the public will tolerate, have flipped,” Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief, commented.  He added “Right along with the rest of our culture.”

Using words to shock is becoming more difficult in our tolerant culture.

I recall the outrage on 13 November 1965 when Kenneth Tynan, the flamboyant (that’s my euphemism) theatre critic and writer, first use THE WORD on BBC, in the days when we had just two television channels.

No less than four censuring motions in the House of Commons, were signed by a total of 133 Labour and Conservative.  Accordingly the BBC issued a formal apology.  But that was 50 years ago!

We all have a deep instinct to use words to shock, if only to express our inner turmoil.  Certainly President Trump seeks to articulate a deep sense of fear, however unfounded, of our culture and way of life being overwhelmed by a tide of immigration.

Here we are not just talking about bad language. As the apostle Paul urges us “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.”  (Colossians 4:6)

Indeed, as I often hear, when some people become Christians, one of the first effects is seen in their speech.  One friend commented that on becoming a disciple of Jesus, his vocabulary was cut by 50%.

No, we are talking about using particular words to shock.  Often it is just offensive, ill-mannered profanity.   Christian don’t do that.

But there are situations when we shock people into action, to see another viewpoint, even to hear what God is saying.

I’m sure that there are some great examples in the Old Testament.  But sadly my daughter and currently-resident Hebrew scholar is still in bed, sleeping in after last evening’s successful book launch.

However, there are some great examples in the New Testament, especially when the apostle Paul is passionate that his churches continue to live by faith in Christ and not to return to their old life of living under the Jewish law.

So he warns the Philippians;  “Watch out for those dogs. They are people who do evil things. When they circumcise, it is nothing more than a useless cutting of the body.”  (Philippians 3:1).

Certainly in his culture to call anyone a dog is profoundly insulting – as is the case in Arab culture today.  The apostle is seeking to jolt these Christians into recognising the danger.

And then he tells his own story.  Such is his joy of knowing Christ that in comparison “I consider everything to be nothing compared to knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. To know him is worth much more than anything else.” (Philippians 3:8)

The apostle continues:  “Because of him I have lost everything. But I consider all of it to be σκύβαλα so I can know Christ better.”

It is possible that your phone, tablet or desktop may be too shocked to show the original Greek word σκύβαλα.  Suffice it to say that σκύβαλα is a scurrilous word referring to excrement.  It has been found in ancient graffiti and in manuscripts linking it as pure profanity!

Accordingly some scholars consider the best translation would be the same S* word used by POTUS.  However, English translations have toned it down to dung or filth.

Very simply Paul is seeking to shock his readers, including us, to see that life apart of Christ is simply S*.  So why would any Christian want to return to their former existence?

And our goal?

“I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”  (Philippians 3:10)

“How on earth can God use me in my situation?” you may ask.

“I believe that God has put gifts and talents and ability on the inside of every one of us,” observes evangelist Joel Osteen.

He continues:  “When you develop that and you believe in yourself and you believe that you’re a person of influence and a person of purpose, I believe you can rise up out of any situation.”

God certainly used the situation my daughter Sharon found herself some eight years ago.  The evidence for this is seen in next Thursday’s SPCK book launch in our Ministry Centre.

In fact, I only really heard the full story from her interview on Premier Radio last month – which I imagine is the norm for most parents!

For in the space of just 14 months Sharon had three daughters, even with the active support of husband Andrew a daunting prospect.  Suddenly her ministry as an ordained Old Testament academic came to an abrupt stop.

All parents will recognise this situation.  As soon as your first child arrives everything radically changes.  Even a trip to your local Morrison’s becomes a major undertaking (and an opportunity – if only for a few fleeting moments – to encounter the outside world).

In order to just to survive Sharon started to try to combine her two worlds – academic theology and being mother to three very active toddlers.  The outcome became known as Diddy Disciples.

Diddy Disciples began at St Peter’s, Walworth in central London, where Andrew is vicar and when in her own words, “their wriggly children were aged 3, 3, and 2, and it felt impossible to take them to church on Sunday.”

She recalls: “Worshipping with babies and toddlers began as a survival tactic, but it soon became a passion.

“The more we learned about the first six years of life, the more important they seemed. During those early years our sense of who we are and where we belong is shaped.”

Such was the success of this venture that Sharon was encouraged to produce a book – Diddy Disciples.  The first of two volumes was launched with great fanfare at St Peter’s last June;  the second is being launched next week here in Aughton.

Now an Amazon best-seller it has been endorsed not just by Archbishop Justin, not just by Richard Peers, our Diocesan Director of Education (who incidentally will be speaking at Thursday’s launch) but far more importantly, our very own Charlotte Chappell whose comments grace the preface of volume one.

But this is how God works – he uses whatever situation we may find ourselves even to launch a ministry.

Like going to prison.  If you are old enough you will remember like me the storm that was Watergate with one of the chief protagonists, presidential Special Counsel, Charles Colson.  His experience of being dispatched to federal prison led to his conversion to Christ and then to him founding the Prison Fellowship International.

Alpha in Prison has a similar pedigree with the story of Paul Cowley, expelled from school and living in a squat and then in a prison cell for petty crimes.  Through attending an Alpha course he became a Christian.  God was then able to use his experience for Paul to lead this very successful Alpha ministry. .

But it doesn’t have to be a difficult or desperate experience for God to use.

When serving at the Good Shepherd in Heswall in the 1980’s I became part of a small support group of curates which included Peter Harris from St Mary’s Upton.  I had a huge regard to Peter.  He had a passion for bird watching and I remember how he would stake out some hide near the River Weaver at some unearthly hour.

From his occasional comment I had the sense that his heart was not in parish ministry.  And so with the support of church leader John Stott, Peter and Miranda moved to Portugal to establish and run a Christian field study centre and bird observatory, A Rocha (which is Portuguese for ‘the rock’.

It seemed to me at the time a huge step of faith but today A Rocha has become a leading international network of environmental organizations with a Christian ethos.

God can take our situation, especially if we feel trapped or just unsettled, and make it work for his Kingdom.  And more, he knows our passions  – for the simple reason that is how he made us.  Whether it is understanding some difficult Hebrew texts or lying for hours in a damp hide, he will use for his glory.

However, sometimes he needs to give us a push.

So as this new year begins, be resolved to respond to whatever prod the Holy Spirit may give you.

“How on earth can God use me in my situation?” you may ask.

God loves a challenge.

When your birthday is overwhelmed by Christmas.

When your birthday is overwhelmed by Christmas.

TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY!

Please click here

There are, of course, some advantages of having your birthday so close to 25 December.

As a child I particularly prized the fact that I would never have to go to school on this my special day. Remember, I went to primary school during the 1950’s when school was not meant to be fun. No Happy Birthday hat at St Nicks’.

And as an adult the big bonus is that my loving family – should they remember – can buy my presents in the sales, giving more bang to their buck.

But sadly it is not a very big bang when compared to the massive boom of Christmas Day. And that’s the burden those of us born close to Christmas have to carry throughout our lives.

People just forget. They may even know that my big day is 29 December but everyone is disorientated during the week between Christmas and New Year. Out of your familiar routine I bet you didn’t even realise that today is a Friday until this blog unexpectedly appeared in your inbox.

And then family and friends tend to be destitute having spent a small fortune on Christmas Day, both presents and parties. Not much money left. Energy deficient.

Which leads me to my biggest bête noire. Even as I type these words I can see my tears landing on my keyboard as I feel the psychological damage which has accrued over the years.

Those people – usually aunties – even with a kind smile as if they are giving me a special treat, saying “Ross, I’m giving you an extra big present this year. I’m combining your Christmas and birthday presents.” So as my birthday arrives just four days later I am gift bereft.

Even as a child I could see through this deception. It would have been kinder simply to say: “Ross, we’re broke. But don’t worry, we will make it up to you and we will buy you an even bigger present – should we remember.”

But life, as my family often hear me say, is tough. And having a Christmas birthday has toughened me up over the years.

However, birthdays are important for all kinds of reasons, not least affirming each other on our special day. And more, to celebrate the sheer gift of life.

For we are more than a mere carbon-based lifeform composed mainly of water.
Oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus may make up 99% of me but of course I am much, much more.

We all know that – whatever reductionists like Richard Dawkins may say. He’s okay – he was born in March.

So we read in Genesis 2:7 “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”

This breath of life, this Spirit of God, makes me infinitely more than just a collection of chemicals, of atoms formed from the elementary particles derived from the pure energy released from the Big Bang 13.8 billion birthdays ago.

Some how or other – God knows how – these atoms eventually had the privilege of becoming me, made in the image of God himself.

Even as a child I have marvelled at this sense self-consciousness, of being aware of being me.

As physician Charles Krauthammer reflects: “Life and consciousness are the two great mysteries. Actually, their substrates are the inanimate. And how do you get from neurons shooting around in the brain to the thought that pops up in your head and mine?”

He continues: “There’s something deeply mysterious about that. And if you’re not struck by the mystery, I think you haven’t thought about it.”

Certainly King David thought about it.

“For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Psalm 139:13f)

Fearfully, because there is something awesome of being alive, above all about being able to respond in love and trust to the God who made us.

And more, to the God – such is his love – who deigned to come among us as one of us so that through the cross of Jesus as the apostle Peter writes, “we may become participants in the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4).

As a human being I am not sure what becoming a participant in the divine nature means except that it means something wonderful, something worth celebrating.

For you gave me a heart
And you gave me a smile,
You gave me Jesus
And you made me your child,
And I just thank you, Father,
For making me ‘me’.

The battle of Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care.

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The battle of Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care. As you would expect, I lost.

I did explain to Jacqui:  “But you haven’t even held it, let alone read it, for at least 25 years!”

However, she patiently explained that the book represented too many memories just to be taken to the charity shop. So it stays (for now).

But I persevere as we downsize in preparation for our move next spring.

For downsizing can be a challenge, especially to those of you who hoard.  “You’ll never know when I may need it!”

In reality most of us live our lives following the Pareto 80:20 Principle.  This means, for example, that we wear just 20% of our clothes for 80% of the time.  There’s ample room for getting rid of stuff, even giving it to someone who may actually need it.

Myself, I am in the minimalist category.  I have already got rid of nearly all my books.  Most to family, others to friends;  the balance to Book Aid and charity shops.  And other paraphernalia.  Even my faithful Adidas Tokyo spikes which I last wore in 1975 had to go, sold via eBay to a collector in London for £39.

The strategy is straight-forward.  You begin in the rooms farthest from the heart of your home.  That’s where there are more items that are simply being stored rather than used.

So I have already tackled my daughters on all the memorabilia they have dumped over the years on our top floor.  I quote to them Anne Valley Fox:  “You can’t have enough of what you didn’t want in the first place.”

But people do find getting rid of things extraordinary difficult.  They need professional help.

In fact, only last year I bumped into an old friend to discover his wife has a new job.  She is a professional declutterer.  In fact, you may not even know that there is a professional body, the APDO. That is, the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers.  I wonder if there is a HELP line.

Jesus, of course, didn’t have much time for clutter.  He calls us as we follow him to travel light.

So he sends the twelve out on their mission:   “Do not get any gold, silver or copper to take with you in your belts. Do not take a bag for the journey. Do not take extra clothes or sandals or walking sticks.”  (Matthew 10:9)

After all, as his disciples Jesus teaches us to sit light to things to ensure that our possessions do not possess us.  He reserves the right to say to us at any time as he said to the rich young ruler: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

But there’s more to clutter than jumble in the attic.  As novelist Eleanor Brown observes: “Clutter is not just physical stuff, it’s old ideas, toxic relationships and bad habits.”

And here again we may well need a professional declutterer – the Holy Spirit himself.

First, our time.  We can so easily fill our time with all kinds of junk.  Not necessarily wrong in itself:  it just means we do not have enough time to do what God wants us to do.   What the apostle Paul calls ‘redeeming the time.’ He write:  “Don’t waste your time on useless work, mere busywork, the barren pursuits of darkness.” (Ephesians 5:16)

That does not necessarily mean, of course, that we do not watch MOTD – which would be a blessing the way Everton are playing this season.  But it does mean a certain introspection as we submit our lives afresh to Christ each morning.

Sometimes it may mean a determination to do nothing rather than to fill our time with meaningless activity.  Being still gives the Holy Spirit
the space to direct us.


And then the way we think.

The Victorian designer and social activist William Morris once said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”   He could have been talking about our minds.

Again the apostle Paul challenges us:  “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Very simply if it’s good, it’s beautiful.  And we hold onto it.

But such decluttering is difficult.  And it needs the same level of discipline, ruthlessness even, as when we downsize.  All that junk – old ways of thinking we know to be wrong and yet strangely persist.  All of it, we give to the Lord as we open our minds to his scripture.    Again, each morning.  .

No wonder the New Testament repeatedly emphasises the renewal of our minds, an alternative mindset, as we encourage each other to think Christianly.

Here I dare to quote Dr Spock himself:  “The main source of good discipline is growing up in a loving family, being loved and learning to love in return.”  (Baby and Child Care page 679)  The family of God, of course.

Does the Shack work?

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The strange thing was not just that the Rose Theatre at Edge Hill was full but that  knew almost everyone there by name.  It was Wednesday evening’s showing of The Shack.

Many of you will have read this New York Times bestseller. At church we sold nearly 100 copies of this imaginative novel  from Canadian author William P. Young.

Well, now it has been made into a film, a difficult enterprise to say the least.

Essentially the book deals with the one event in life we all fear – our young daughter being abducted and murdered.   Where is God in all this?  We discover this as the father is invited by a mysterious note in his mailbox to return to the remote shack where his daughter’s bloodied clothing was found.

For there he encounters God.

What makes this novel so unusual is that Young depicts God as three persons.  – Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu.  And to begin with Papa is represented by a warm and welcoming African-American woman called Elouisia.  As the embittered father, Mack, relates to each character so he begins to see the tragedy from a new perspective and his healing begins.  He even glimpses his resurrected daughter fully restored.

It’s a strange, daring book. Young informs us that the title is a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain”  And certainly he knew pain as a child.

He writes on his website that “sexual abuse was a frequent part of my childhood. In fact I don’t remember life as a little boy without it being the one constant.”  Tragically his missionary parents were unaware of the torment he was experiencing.”

The film goes further in that the main character, Mack, suffers physical abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father.  He seeks God’s help but as a 13-year-old boy takes matters into his own hands and seeks to poison his father with strychnine.

But otherwise, as far as I can remember, the film stays close to the book – except that in the film the serial killer is not brought to justice.

As a film it was okay.  “Not a dry eye in the house,” someone observed.  It does captures the sheer terror of the discovery that your lovely daughter has been seized by a serial killer.  A little-bit over the top at the conclusion where everyone lives happily-ever-after.

Moreover I appreciated the film version of Elousia, again a warm and welcoming character who makes great breakfasts.  Count me in. However, the later depiction of God the Father by a native American elder didn’t register for me.  In fact, I would hesitate to buy a second-hand car from him.

Jesus the middle-Eastern carpenter seemed friendly enough.  He enjoys going for runs (on water), which I appreciated, though probably too fast for me now.  While Sarayu the Holy Spirit was a little bit too ethereal.

The film works, like the book, in giving us a context for unexplained suffering.  We see through a glass darkly.  However, God welcomes us into a loving, caring relationship with him for he is love.  He delights in us and is pained as we suffer.

Clearly for Young, the writer, the book – which he never intended for publication – was part of his own healing process.

He writes:  “It took fifty years to find that little child hidden in a closet deep in the basement recesses of a broken structure. It is me that God loves, with all my losses and hiding and devastating choices.

And it is you that God loves. You and me, we are the ones that Jesus, along with his Father and the Holy Spirit, left the ninety-nine to go find. This love is relentless, and we are not powerful enough to change it.”

However, the very heart of the Shack, both book and film, is seriously flawed.  There is no need for Jesus to be crucified.  Yes, Jesus shows Mack his wounds – but that’s as far as it goes.  Certainly the cross is not integral to Young’s plot.

As Young’s fellow American, Billy Graham, teaches:  “God proved His love on the Cross. When Christ hung, and bled, and died, it was God saying to the world, ‘I love you.”  And that is where we begin.

Fundamentally the cross of Jesus, how it works, is a mystery. We can use analogies and metaphors but they can only go so far.  At its basic level the cross is beyond our understanding but by no means beyond our experience.

“Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free!”  (Ephesians 1:7 Message translation).

Such is his compassion God comes to us in our pain to share our pain.  And he calls us to do likewise, to go in his name and share the pain and abandonment of others

A story for Armistice Day tomorrow.

In the trenches army chaplain Studdert Kennedy (aka Woodbine Willie) hears of a small party of solders marooned in no-man’s land trying to save a colleague.  On hearing his cries of pain they had gone out to comfort him but now they too are trapped and under heavy fire.  They too cry out in pain and distress.

So Kennedy crawls out, under fire, just to be with them.

As he makes contact the astonished soldiers ask “Who are you?”

“The Church,” he replies.

“What on earth are you doing here? asks the soldier.

“My job,” replies Kennedy.

Our job too in Jesus’ name.